Six years after the venerable investment bank Lehman Brothers evaporated and the global economy imploded, leaving shell-shocked exhibitors at the Norwalk Boat Show in search of answers, the docks were decidedly upbeat this year.
Foot traffic, however, was down from a year ago — 12,888 people, compared with 16,326 in 2013, despite good weather — but dealers said the serious buyer was clearly back.
The 400-boat western Connecticut show, held Sept. 18-21 this year, draws buyers from throughout the New York metropolitan area.
“We took 14 deposits. Our new Sea Ray 270 Sundeck with a Mercury Verado outboard sold the very first day of the show, with a solid group of prospects that would like to try it before purchasing it,” says Dave Dzurilla, general sales manager at MarineMax in Norwalk. “Overall, the mood was low-key, the customer is educating themselves and, I believe, purchasing from folks that will stand behind their product better than ever.”
He says Boston Whalers, particularly in the 23- to 32-foot range, are selling well in the region.
“Overall the show went well for us. Although the attendance seemed to be off, we were happy with the quality of people we met. It was nice to see a good turnout of younger families with a real interest in boating,” Mitch O’Hara Jr., vice president of Candlewood East Marina, which carries the Cobalt, Malibu and Nautique lines, said shortly after the show wrapped. “We held a follow-up test drive event last weekend on Candlewood Lake and had one of our best turnouts ever. From the show and the event we have written several deals and feel that we will close a few more within the next week or so.”
Several dealers commented on the spring swoon in the selling season that was surprisingly countered by sales that continued deep into the summer.
“In 37 years in the industry I don’t remember selling as many boats in August, and it seems like the momentum is continuing through,” says Bob Petzold, president of Portland, Conn.’s Petzold Marine Center, which sells Sabre, Back Cove, Ocean, Regal and EdgeWater. “Sales are definitely up and we seem to be in a good place now.”
“We’re selling more boats than last year and I don’t know why, considering the Connecticut economy has not fully recovered,” he adds.
Petzold notes that his clientele continues to be “mostly older, with some young ones mixed, but I’d say better than 60 percent are nearing retirement age.”
Bentley Collins, vice president of marketing and sales at Sabre Yachts, was on hand to support Petzold and confirmed the upward sales trajectory.
“Our fall season is going great. August was the best month in company history,” he says.
Ben Wilde, owner of Nordic Tugs dealer Wilde Yachts in Essex, Conn., says his crew passed on last year’s show because of a lack of production, but he was glad he exhibited this year.
“There are good people here. We’re cautiously optimistic,” he says. Like other dealers, he noted the late-running selling season.
“Interest didn’t pick up until July 20, I remember the date, and we’ve been on fire since then, and I know from speaking to others it’s not just us,” he says.
He quickly listed 10 boats his small dealership has sold since that July day, a mix of new and brokerage boats ranging from 26 to 42 feet.
“We’re selling more new boats now — right now, we’re running out of good-quality brokerage boats, which is both good and bad — but we hadn’t sold a new 42 since 2008,” he says.
“This is always a selling show for us,” says Dave Nolan, president of South Dartmouth, Mass.-based Cape Yachts, which sells new and used Beneteau, Everglades and San Lorenzo yachts. “We’re feeling confident for the first time in a long time.”
This summer, Cape Yachts opened a dealership office in Port Washington on New York’s Long Island to meet customer demand.
“It used to be people bought boats at the show, but that’s changed,” Nolan says. “Now the buying process is longer, and in this market you can’t sell to somebody. They have to want to buy it. It’s more about the buying experience now.”
Bryan Douglas, a 30-year dealer and co-owner of G&R Marine in South Windsor, Conn., which carries the Yamaha, NauticStar and Sylvan boat lines, noticed the lower attendance but came out of the show confident.
“That was the best Norwalk show we’ve had in years. Traffic was lighter, but they were good-quality people and we sold a number of boats and a couple of WaveRunners,” he says, declining to offer specific numbers.
He confirmed industry data that say the consumer’s appetite for sterndrive propulsion has lessened. He says he is benefiting by selling Yamaha jet-drive boats.
“We’re getting more serious buyers — definitely,” says Bruce Chappel, a sales consultant at MarineMax in Westbrook, Conn. “A lot of people I’ve spoken with are people who are boat owners looking to move up. And the 40- to 50-foot range is finally showing signs of life.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue.